84: Lizabeth Cohen’s Town Center to Shopping Center

In “From Town Center to Shopping Center: The Reconfiguration of Community Marketplaces in Postwar America,” Lizabeth Cohen shows that the shift in consumer spaces from downtown shopping districts to suburban shopping centers and malls threatens the public sphere on which democracy depends.

The new landscapes of postwar mass consumption had three major effects on American community life:

  • by commercializing public space, they brought market segmentation, including divisions by race and class, to community life
  • by privatizing public space, they privileged the rights of property owners over citizens’ rights to free speech
  • by feminizing public space, they gave women more of a claim to the suburban landscape, but they circumscribed their power by constructing them as consumers only

If mass consumption was supposed to bring standardization in merchandise and consumption patterns, the way it structured (and continues to structure) space actually did the opposite.  Further, the dependence on private spaces for public activity and the increasing privatization of public space threatens democracy: if people no longer have a space to speak our minds or critique larger systems of power, how are we a democracy at all?

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